Ed Nawotka reports on how the Sharjah International Book Fair has promoted translations of Arabic titles
In 1966, Al-Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North was published. The book was one of the first contemporary novels written in Arabic to travel far beyond its borders when it appeared in English just three years later as part of the legendary Heinemann African Writers series.
In December 1973, the General Assembly of the United Nations approved Arabic as an official UN language, forever marking 18 December as Arabic Language Day.
Then, in 1988, the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz was the first Arabic-language writer to win the Nobel Prize.
These are all significant milestones. But why, after all this time and considering that Arabic is the fifth most-spoken language in the world, with some 370 million users, is Mahfouz still the only Arabic-language writer to win the Nobel?
It likely has to do with translation. Mark Linz, the trailblazing director of the American University in Cairo Press, who died in 2013, was instrumental in bringing Mahfouz to English-language readers for the first time. English, being a gateway language, helped introduce Mahfouz, and scores of other authors Linz published in translation, to the world. Alas, translation cannot only go in one direction - and here lies the problem.
In 2002, Jordanian researcher Dr Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, then director of the Arab regional office in the UN Development Program, issued a report that studied book publishing and other habits among Arabs. She discovered that the total number of books translated into Arabic was typically no more than 330 per year. The report went on to say that the total number of books translated into Arabic during the 1,000 years since the age of Caliph Al-Ma'mun, the ninth-century ruler, was then less than those translated into Spanish in one year. This lack of translation was later underscored when UNESCO, which has been tracking literary translations since 1932, said over the 30-year period from 1979 to 2009 just 11,500 books were translated into Arabic from across the world.
Fortunately, these figures are woefully out of date. Today, according to the latest UNESCO Index Translation Statistics, while Arabic is only 29th on the top 50 list of "target languages", which considers translation of titles into specific languages, it is significantly stronger in translations from Arabic to other languages, where it ranks 17th on the list of "original language translation".
What has changed? When considering the production of Arabic language books one needs to take in the entirety of the Arab-speaking world, which includes 22 countries of the Arab league: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, KSA, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, UAE, Yemen. While accurate statistics are difficult to come by, the online bookseller Neelwafurat has estimated the production of new Arabic books at between 15,000 and 18,000 titles per year, of which 20% are translations from other languages. That means that foreign publishers have a minimum of 12,000 new titles per year to choose from.
In the United States, 310 books were translated and published by mainstream trade houses from 2008 until the end of 2020, according to Publishers Weekly's Translation Database. The range of books is immense: among those being published in translation this year are Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, a work of historical fiction about the sufferings of the Palestinian people during the summer of 1949 translated by Elisabeth Jaquette and published by New Directions, and Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous, a novel set in present-day Damascus about the relationship between a writer and his muse.
It is clear that Arabic language books are garnering more and more international attention as well. To wit: the awarding of the 2019 International Booker Prize to Celestial Bodies, a book about a trio of Omani sisters who take different paths in life by Jokha Alharthi, in a translation from Arabic by Marilyn Booth. It was published in Sandstone Press.
Sharjah translation grants and awards
Some of the credit for fostering more and more translation to and from Arabic must go to the Sharjah Book Authority, which, since 2011, has been offering grant support for publishers looking to acquire rights while at the Sharjah International Book Fair. The grant program intends to facilitate cross-cultural exchange and offers various levels of funding support to Arab and foreign publishers for the translation of literary works into various languages. The support is generous, with as much as $4,000 available for general titles and $1,500 for children's books. Overall, the fund supports up to $300,000 of grants each year, with over 400 books in the scheme.
In addition, starting in 2016 the SBA began offering the Sharjah Translation Award, also known as the Turjuman Award. The award "aims to promote Arabic titles globally by encouraging international translators and publishers to pick up titles written by renowned Arab authors and translate them for audiences worldwide, thereby contributing to global appreciation of Arabic literature and enhancing cross-cultural communication," according to the organisers.
The Turjuman Award is open to international publishing houses that have published translations of an original publication in Arabic. Publishers may submit more than one work for the jury's consideration each year.
It offers a cash prize of AED 1.3 million ($350,000), with 70% of the prize money going to the foreign publishing house that holds the translation rights and 30% to the Arab publishing house that published the first edition of the book.
Past winners of the Turjuman Award include Spanish publishing house Editorial Verbum for translating and publishing One Thousand and One Nights; France's Actes Sud for a translation of The Nature of Despotism by Syrian author Abdul Rahman Al Kawakibi; and Italian publisher Edizioni E/O for its Italian translation of the novel A Small Death (Mawt Sagheer) by Saudi author Mohammed Hasan Alwan. The 2020 winner will be announced at this year's fair.
2019 Winners of SIBF Translation Grants
1. Dar Raheeq Al-Kotob
2. Dar Al Mishkat for Publishing and Distribution
3. Tohum Yayıncılık ( Yeni Insan )
4. Yeni Insan (Tohum Yayıncılık)
5. Dar Al Beyrouni for Distribution and Publication
6. Les Éditions Québec Amérique
7. Prozoretz Publishing House
9. Al-Shegrey for Publishing & Information Technology
10. Rawabt for Publishing & Information Technology
11. ARI Literary and Talent Agency
12. Alborj Media
13. Dixi Books Publishing
14. Arab Scientific Publishers, Inc.
16. Carlo Gallucci editore srl
17. Prozart media
18. Belleville editions
19. Nabd Al Qalam
20. Nora-Druk Publishers
21. ibiidi Publishing
22. Akdem Copyright & Translation Agency
23. Bata Press
24. Intelekti Publishing
25. 1st Literary Agency
26. Dar Al Hiwar
27. Daralmuotaz for publishing and Distribution
28. Fadaam for Publishing and distribuation
29. Editora Tabla (Editora Roça Nova Ltda)
31. Thaqafa Publishing & Distribution LLC
32. Arab Scientific Publishers
33. Al Maktabi for Publishing and distribuation
34. Mamdouh Adwan Publishing House
35. Interlink Publishing
37. Sefsafa Publishing House
38. Arab Nile Group
39. Egyptian Office for Publishing & Distribution
40. Nour el Maaref for publishing
41. Dar Al Mintad for Publishing and distribuation
42. Mahrousa center for Publishing
43. alef ba'a ta'a nasheron
44. Dar Shahrazad
45. Aser Al-Kotob
46. PenKin Books
47. Kenana for publishing and distribution
48. Nar Yayınları Müzik Film ve Reklamcılık Ltd Şti
49. Kalem Agency
50. Agora Publishing House
51. International House for Cultural Investments
52. Nepko Kids
53. Beit Al-Hikmah
54. Kathalaya Inc. Pvt. Ltd.
55. Publishing House "Fan Noli"
56. Textofilia Ediciones
57. Editora Trinta Zero Nove
58. Saikatham Books LLP
59. The Mathrubhumi Printing & Publishing Company Limited
60. Sonia Draga Sp. z o.o.
61. Academic Press of Georgia
62. Nar Yayinlari Muzik Film ve Reklamcilik Ltd Sti
63. Green Books Private Limited
64. Nika-Center (Hika-Centre) Publishing House
66. Egyptian Cultural Assembly
67. Dar Oktob for publishing
68. Čigoja štampa doo, Belgrade
69. Bait El Yasmine
70. Amnah House for Publishing
71. AlArabi Publishing and distribution
72. Dar Al Rowad
73. Dar Al Taqwa
74. Dar Hala for publishing and distribution
This article appears in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch magazine for visitors to the Sharjah International Book Fair.